Hobbits, as you know, are the adorable and heroic creatures of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, and "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy. When it comes to sleep, we may be more like hobbits than even Tolkien imagined.
Getting a good night's sleep is one of the fundamental ingredients for a happy and successful life. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't get a good night's sleep. There are many reasons for this, and many things that a person can do to improve their quality of sleep.
Today I want to talk about one problem, anxiety, and one solution: a little known piece of information about patterns of sleep that may help you if you have a certain kind of sleep trouble.
First, the anxiety: Anxiety is an interesting phenomenon. You can feel anxious for obvious reasons, like in a dangerous or threatening situation, for vague reasons that you can sort of piece together, or for seemingly no reason at all.
What you decide about the anxiety can have a significant impact on how that anxiety affects you.
If you decide that to feel anxiety means that something is terribly wrong and if you decide that you must first get rid of that anxiety before you can carry on with whatever you're doing, that anxiety will take on a much greater role and wield much more power over you than if you decide that anxiety is just a feeling, just part of life, and the thing to do is to get used to that anxiety, ride it like a wave and carry on.
In other words, anxiety is kind of like a wild animal. If you have raccoons or deer or bobcats in your neighborhood, as we do, and you leave food out for them, they will visit you more often and in increasing numbers. If you don't feed them, they may pass through and nibble on things from time to time but they won't cause the same kind of trouble.
By deciding that anxiety means trouble, and the only useful thing to do with it is to rid yourself of it completely, you are creating a very small − and very unlikely − window of success. You can no more rid yourself completely of anxiety than you can rid yourself completely of anger or joy or love or pain or sadness. Nor would you want to.
But you can make a different decision about what anxiety means, and in doing so, by accepting and understanding that your feelings are natural and normal, you can prevent the kind of escalation of anxiety that is often the true cause of trouble.
Anxiety is fundamentally just a feeling; it can be a warning to you of danger or it can be a misguided resonance from an earlier time in your life. It can even be the result of subtle hyperventilation that lowers your CO2 levels.
Sometimes anxiety can be misunderstood excitement. You can test this out by switching the word "excitement" for the word "fear" or "anxiety" in a sentence: If you might say something like, "I'm anxious about this presentation," try saying instead, "I'm excited about this presentation." You might find that you actually feel a little of both, and more on the excitement end than you were aware of.
In today's risk-free, pain-free, consequence-free, negative-emotion-of-any-kind-free culture, when a person feels anxiety, it is too often decided that any feelings of anxiety must be banished.
(There is a whole issue of massive over-prescription of psychoactive medication treatment in the quest for the abolition of anxiety and other troubles. It is too big to go into here but see Robert Whitaker's book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, and Dr. Peter Breggin's web site)
I want to suggest a different kind of relationship with your feelings of all kinds, including anxiety.
Feelings are in many ways the stuff of human life. Whether you feel sadness, joy, fear or love your feelings color your experiences and infuse your existence with meaning and depth. But they are also not complete and separate phenomena. It is not just your feelings but your understanding and mastery of your feelings − integrating your feelings with your understanding and thought and action − that makes for a happy and successful life.
If you are having trouble around feelings such as anxiety it can help to see your feelings as just that − feelings. They are not by themselves wise guides to the holy grail of your existence. They are not all-powerful predictors of your fate. They are not signs of deep and intractable trouble.
Your anxiety is just a feeling. Identify the physical sensations that accompany that feeling. Maybe there is tension in your chest, or vibration in your belly, or tingling in your skin. If so, focus on those sensations and think of them as purely physical sensations, like a mild cramp or a sore muscle.
Take the search for deeper meaning out of the equation for the moment and just see the anxiety for what it is at its most basic level: simply a physical sensation. This can slow or stop the escalation of the anxiety.
Then you can decide whether there is some real danger that you need to address, or some kind of action that you need to take. Sometimes your feelings can signal you that there is something important that you need to do.
If you can identify the action, then you don't have to dwell on the feeling anymore − the feeling has already served its purpose. To dwell on the feeling would be like seeing the temperature gauge climbing while driving your car and instead of pulling over and putting some water in your radiator, just continuing to stare at the gauge.
Okay, what does this have to do with sleep?
Do you (or does someone you know) sleep for awhile and then wake up in the middle of the night? Then do you get anxious because you worry that because you've awoken, now you won't get the sleep you need? Then does that very anxiety prevent you from getting back to sleep?
The anxiety that you feel may be due to a mistaken idea. Although we have come to believe that a good night's sleep means sleeping consistently through the night, we humans may be more complicated than this. (Surprise! We usually are).
In an article by Walter A. Brown, M.D. in Psychiatric Times, March 2007, "Broken Sleep May Be Natural Sleep," he writes that, in fact, our natural sleep pattern may be to have two distinct rounds of sleep:
…before artificial illumination was widely used, people typically slept in 2 bouts, which they called first sleep and second sleep. In those times, sleep was more closely tied to sunset and sunrise than it is now. Within an hour or so after sunset, people retired to bed, slept for about 4 hours, and then woke up. They remained awake for a couple of hours and then returned to sleep at about 2 am for another 4 hours or so.
Brown also cites research by Thomas A. Wehr, MD, then a sleep researcher at the NIMH:
…when 8 healthy men had their light/dark schedules shifted from their customary 16 hours of light, 8 hours of dark to one in which they were exposed to natural and artificial light for 10 hours each day and confined to a dark room for 14 hours each night (durations of light and dark similar to the natural durations of day and night in winter) a sleep pattern similar to that of the preindustrial era developed. They slept in 2 bouts of about 4 hours each separated by 1 to 3 hours of quiet wakefulness.
Of course, it's not likely that many people will want to − or could − forgo their electric lighting and set aside 11 hours per night for sleeping. What's important here is to understand that if you or someone you know is waking up in the middle of the night, in itself there is nothing abnormal or harmful going on. You do not have a "sleep disorder." You have simply finished your first round of sleep.
Hobbits, you may recall, not only had a "first breakfast," but later on in the morning they had a "second breakfast," which they always relished. So, like a Hobbit after a first breakfast, if you can relax and accept the natural sleep cycle, the next course of sleep will probably come shortly.
Knowing that this mid-sleep wakefulness is perfectly normal can help to relieve the anxiety and prevent the escalation that comes from thinking that something is terribly wrong.
Then you can get up and read, or wash dishes, or just turn over and go back to sleep for your second round of normal, healthy sleep.